Naomi Alderman: “Writing is mostly tricks for keeping yourself writing”

Naomi Alderman, author of Disobedience and The Liar’s Gospel, was recently picked out by Granta as one of Britain’s best young novelists in the latest instalment of its legendary once-in-a-decade list. But she’s also a columnist, a writer of video games — and big fan of zombies. She kindly shared some tips that have helped her with her writing.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?

How to detect bullshit. How to notice when bullshit is being performed, and how to call it out without people hating you. In general, a skill I’ve learned as I’ve got older is how to stand up for myself without attacking other people - the only way I think if you didn’t get that from your upbringing is to have a ton of therapy. So that’s one of my recommendations: a ton of therapy.

But on bullshit - the digital space in particular is full of people claiming to know stuff when they actually know very little. When I started out I might have felt that if someone was saying something and it sounded like a bunch of buzzwords strung together it was probably that *I* wasn’t following properly.

Now I know enough to go “OK, explain that to me slowly”, “OK, what do you mean when you use that word”. And to notice when the questions make them uncomfortable. People who know their stuff aren’t made uncomfortable when you ask them about it searchingly - they love it because they love to talk about their area of expertise. If they start to squirm when you dig in with your questions, if they reply with another load of jargon words, you might just be dealing with… bullshit.

If somebody asked you for tips on becoming a better writer, what’s the one thing you’d tell them?

Write a lot. Seriously, writing is like anything else, you get better the more you do it. In fact, “writing” is mostly “tricks for keeping yourself writing” and if you keep at it you’ll get better. You just will.

There are limits to this, however. I knew someone once who wrote 10,000 words a day. That won’t make you better, it’ll make you worse, because you’ll lose the sense of choosing your words carefully. So I’d say: unless you’re a poet, (I have no advice for poets) try to write somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words in your chosen discipline (fiction, memoir, scripts, whatever) almost every day for about two years. If at the end of that you haven’t improved at all, try something else.

A short version of this interview was previously published in Overmatter, the weekly email from digital longform publisher MATTER. Sign up to become a Member today to receive a weekly dose of great stories, enthralling links and insightful tips.